A few years ago, I did some consultancy work for an environmental charity. After a few months, I realised that they hadn’t quite grasped what an architect does. Too late, it dawned on them I could think and draw in 3D as well as looking at procurement and public engagement.

We did have some interesting debates, though. Many of them saw road use as a polar issue. Two wheels good, four wheels bad, eighteen wheels worst of all. Cars were a menace but lorries were the work of the devil. They were all for sustainability, but when I pointed out that we could all learn about sustainability from the clever engineering of firms like sports cars manufacturer TVR, they shouted me down.

Peter Wheeler was a chemical engineer before he bought TVR Engineering and transformed it. History rhymes, and following the news in recent months about Project Grenadier, does it seem so strange that Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos is also going into the car business, to build his own 4x4?

As co-founder, with Mimo Berardelli, of ETA Process Plant, Peter Wheeler built a world-class chemical engineering business from scratch. He identified a need to reduce the dissolved oxygen content of water re-injected into oilfields, and thus reduce its corrosiveness. Using Wheeler’s engineering flair and commercial nous, ETA supplied de-aerators to oilfields in the North Sea and far beyond.

Berardelli and Wheeler sold the business in 1982, providing the latter with the funds to buy TVR. The first of his Rover V8-engined TVRs was introduced the following year: brash cars with high performance and garish paint schemes. Yet the real achievement of TVR was the skill it developed in design engineering.

At its peak, the firm employed approaching 1000 people in a factory at Bristol Avenue in Blackpool which once made kitchen equipment. Among them was a small team of designers and engineers who thrived on ingenuity. Two examples are the golfball door release in the TVR Chimaera, which is housed in the pillar rather than in the door, and the car’s brilliantly simple hard top mechanism.

Another was TVR’s second engine to be designed from a clean sheet of paper, the Tuscan Speed Six engine or AJP-6. TVR Engineering selected an Austempered Ductile Iron (ADI) crankshaft for its combination of low cost, low weight and high torsional strength. As far as I’m aware it’s still the only production application of an ADI crankshaft.

Peter Wheeler’s belief that cars didn’t need ABS or airbags went against conventional thinking. Yet thanks to its roll cage, a TVR could withstand a high speed accident and protect driver and passenger better than almost anything else on the road. “The advantage of basing the chassis on that of TVR's one-make race series car is that there is probably no chassis anywhere in the world that has been so often and so comprehensively crash-tested.”

The car’s structure was a double-deck ladder frame made from large diameter tubes, with outriggers onto which a lightweight composite body was mounted. TVR’s expertise with glassfibre and carbon fibre mats and resins, combined with the triangulated space frame, provided the cars with high torsional stiffness, and huge energy absorption in the event of a crash.

Design was one thing, translating it into production was quite another. As TVR said in one of its press releases, “The very latest high technology has been used, not in the styling but in the design engineering, to enable one of the largest British-owned car manufacturers to produce simple and elegant solutions to the problems of how to hand-build such sophisticated cars in such small volumes.”

Around then TVR developed a system of “low part count” manufacturing – which sounds simple in principle, but wasn’t something I’d heard of before. However, as is often the way, once you’re aware of it being a “thing”, you recognise it the next time you come across it. The next time was reading about a single-engined trainer aircraft, the SAH-1, which was developed in Cornwall during the 1980’s.

The SAH-1 (named after Sydney Arthur Holloway, in the same way that TVR’s AJP-6 engine was named for Al Melling, John Ravenscroft and Peter Wheeler) was flight tested by Pilot magazine in 1984. “Only one radius is used throughout the fuselage so the same forming tools can be used to make all the frames. There are very few individual parts in the fuselage, but heavy gauge light alloy skins are used and these feel firm to the touch.”

Colin Chapman of Lotus is reputed to have said, “Simplify, then add lightness,” in a similar vein to Dieter Ram’s aphorism, “Less but better”. Low part count manufacturing helps to address both. In material terms, a single-piece moulded, forged or cast component is better than an assembled or fabricated part for lots of reasons: simplifying the design helps to reduce manufacturing complexity, so quality improves, there’s less waste, assembly is faster, labour is reduced, costs are lower. CNC milling from the solid or 3D printing can also assist in simplifying things.

Think about that, as you detail a building. The problems almost always happen at junctions and are usually worst where dissimilar materials meet. The more complexity, the more expensive it is to build. Conversely, a lower part count can mean fewer raw materials and less embodied energy, too. For that reason, the future of intelligent design lies in low part count manufacturing. Simpler to construct, more resource-efficient, with less embodied energy, and as a bonus hopefully a visually elegant solution – and we have a sports car manufacturer to thank for that.

The TVR Griffith’s body design and low-part-count manufacturing system were the work of John Ravenscroft, who was in direct competition with Peter Wheeler and his dog, who were in the process of designing the TVR Chimaera at the same time. The often-repeated urban myth is that Ned the dog bit a chunk out of the Chimaera mock-up’s front air dam, and that became a “design feature”…

Both cars were designed in 3D and sculpted from one foam styling buck which was half-Griffith, half-Chimaera. The designs were so well received that TVR built both, and the Griffith went on to win a Design Council award in 1993: “British Design Award 1993, Presented to TVR Engineering Limited on 27 January 1993 at the Design Council to mark the selection of the Griffith, designed by Peter Wheeler, John Ravenscroft, Neill Anderson, Ian Hopley.”

Later, TVR’s Sagaris used lightweight cross-woven Vinylester bodywork, which saved 60kg over comparable glassfibre bodywork which the firm had used up to then, and the Typhon (literally and metaphorically the ultimate TVR) had a steel chassis which was originally designed for 24 hour racing at Le Mans, its rigidity increased by a tubular rollcage plus a lightweight aluminium honeycomb and carbonfibre floorpan.

In fact for sports cars, lightness is one of the most important design parameters, because it improves handling. It’s why the wheels on my own car (which isn’t a TVR…) are forged rather than cast aluminium, saving several kilograms of unsprung weight per corner. Press-forging minimises waste metal compared to machining, and by re-aligning the metal’s internal crystalline structure along natural lines of stress, results in much stronger parts than casting would produce.

As for TVR today? Wheeler sold the company in 2006 to a Russian oligarch, but just like Bristol Cars without its figurehead Tony Crook, the firm soon lost its way. There is a new car which has supposedly been in development for several years, but it doesn’t have TVR’s brashness nor its proportions, especially the Coke bottle waistline. Sadly, with little progress reported over the past couple of years it seems doomed, like the well-meaning attempt to revive Jensen Cars in the late 1990’s…

Yet that shouldn’t detract from TVR’s greatest achievement, pioneering Low Part Count manufacturing which by now should have found countless outlets across many different industries, including construction.

This entry was posted by and is filed under technology.
By • Galleries: technology

No feedback yet